Matters of the heart: After Larry Davis' heart stopped on Valentine's Day 2015, he and his wife switched to whole-food lifestyle

While most couples will celebrate Valentine’s Day with rich dinners and decadent desserts, Joan and Larry Davis will dine on spaghetti with marinara sauce, spinach with cranberries, and cheesecake topped with strawberry glaze.

The difference? The Davis’s meal will be entirely whole-food and plant-based. In other words, it will omit meat, dairy, eggs and oil in favor of whole grains, leafy greens and cleverly disguised tofu. If the comparison was not immediately apparent, that is the point of their crusade to improve their lifestyle and that of others interested in “going WFPB,” as Joan calls it.

This Valentine’s Day will be of particular importance for the couple. At 4:12 a.m. Feb. 14, 2015, Larry’s heart flatlined after undergoing a successful triple bypass surgery.

“I remember the time because I looked at the clock as nurses were rushing into the room,” Larry said. “I remember feeling fine, and in complete disbelief that any of this was happening.”

The health scare shocked Joan and Larry, who are in their late sixties and very active. The Del Webb Sun City residents exercise several times a week and are avid travelers, booking trips to locales across the globe each year. Larry enjoys scuba diving and has logged nearly 2,600 dives.

“I had just gotten back from a diving trip in the Philippines, and before that I did the Polar Plunge in Antarctica,” Larry said. “When my doctor told me I had three blocked arteries, I was completely dumbfounded.”

Larry’s recovery was slow but steady as he was fitted with a defibrillator and pacemaker and completed cardiac rehabilitation. He dutifully took his medication and followed his doctor’s lifestyle recommendations: Resume exercise and the low-fat diet he had consumed for much of his life. Both Larry and Joan were dismayed, however, because they felt this advice had brought them to the hospital in the first place.

At the behest of her twin sister, Joan picked up the book, “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease” by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. A former nurse, Joan was skeptical at first, but upon realizing Esselstyn was associated with the Cleveland Clinic, she decided to read on, and then couldn’t put it down. The couple enrolled in a workshop at the Cleveland Clinic hosted by Esselstyn. There, they learned about research supporting plant-based, whole-foods lifestyles and methods to cook and eat that way every day.

“It gave us such hope, because all we had heard before this was ‘everything in moderation,’ which could give you a ‘moderate’ heart attack,” Joan said.

According to a scientific review published in 2003 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a plant-based diet could be a preventative measure against cardiovascular disease. The review examined the findings of several studies focused on the correlation between dietary habits and heart health and found substantial evidence to support plant-based diets that include whole grains as the main form of carbohydrate, unsaturated fats as the predominate form of dietary fat, and an abundance of fruits, vegetables and fatty acids can play an important role in preventing cardiovascular disease or reversing its effects.

With this in mind, Larry and Joan purged their refrigerator, freezer and pantry of any offending foods, including anything processed or with added sugar. They have learned to “negotiate” at restaurants; for example, they order breakfast skillets without eggs and oil but loaded with potatoes and fresh veggies. Meals at home now include oil-free gravy, meatless meatloaf and mashed potatoes with almond milk.

“I used to be the kind of person who would only make a recipe that was three ingredients or less,” Joan said with laugh. “But now, I’m making recipes that are 20-plus ingredients, and they actually turn out well.”

Today, Larry is down to one blood pressure medication and has halved the amount of statins he must take. The Davises plan to continue their newfound lifestyle indefinitely and look forward to resuming their travels this year. As they experience new cultures across the globe, they say they become more aware of the growing need to reform dietary habits in America.

“We have to do something. We have to make major changes to the way Americans are eating,” Joan said. “We can’t keep doing what we’re doing.”

Larry echoes this sentiment, noting the right motivation will inspire changes in the refrigerators and grocery store aisles nationwide.

“Being alive and healthy is the best motivation,” he said.